Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Road Trip!!

11 weeks after landing in Kathmandu, I finally left the valley. Well, that’s not entirely true – the SIRC is actually one hill outside of the Kathmandu Valley. It’s definitely a god-send to be able to work in the countryside, rather than the soot and dust-filled city, but it’s just a few miles from my home, so it doesn’t seem like I’ve gone anywhere.

The little day-trip roadie just 25 km west of the city turned into an epic adventure that had all the plusses and minuses of Nepal wrapped into a 13-hour package. The trip was organized by Woo Suk Junk (Sook), a project manager for the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association (KSCIA). Koreans are all over Nepal working on any number of development projects ranging from road and hospital building to financing the new handicapped table tennis center in Jorpati.

A month earlier, I worked briefly with a Korean film team who was shooting the grand opening of the 2nd floor bathrooms at the SIRC, which were donated by the KSCIA. Nice though the bathrooms are, their main focus was filming the building of a wheelchair accessible home high above the Tsuli River just west of the city. They spent 10 days filming the disabled couple as friends and family worked to rebuild their old home that was destroyed by the earthquake. Unfortunately, the film budget ran out before the house was finished. My job was to shoot video of the finished project.

Suk had commandeered the SIRC’s Bolero four-wheel jeep for the day. I was showered and ready for a 7 a.m. pickup outside my house and was a bit taken aback when the driver who pulled up was Suman, the same driver who had rolled the SIRC bus over my left wheel. I was screaming mad that day, and though we’d buried the hatchet, I never really warmed up to the guy. But after just a few miles in the car, we were laughing at some idiot Nepali drivers and all the tension quickly melted away. By the end of the day we’d become road-warrior buddies.

Suman drove me though the back roads behind Kathmandu’s Tribuhavn airport and gave me a little tour of the neighborhoods where he grew up and still lives. He stopped off at his house and gave his wife a jug of fresh milk that he’d picked up at a local farm. The milk was still cow-body warm and it almost made me heave.

Suman - Nepal's King of the Road!
We skirted the airport and picked up Chetra, the third member of our crew, in Jorpati. Chetra is one of my favorite cats at the SIRC. He’s a PT who runs the super-busy wheelchair assembly and repair shop. We hit it off early on in my trip when I whipped out a tube of J-B Weld to repair the bus’s wheelchair ramp. He thought the stuff was amazing and made me promise to send him a dozen tubes when I got back to America. (We also used the same tube to repair my left wheel when Suman crushed it!). Chetra has the mindset of an engineer. He sees problems and fixes them. He’s also great at pranking people who deserve it.

Two miles later we came upon the Hotel Tibet, a high-end hotel just across the street from the world-famous Boudha Stupa (the one with the crazy eyes!). Suk popped in the car and handed us all water and bananas. The four of us were on an adventure and the longer the day got, the happier I became with each one of them.  

It was 9 o’clock by the time we scooped up Suk and we had to cross the entire city in heavy traffic. It took nearly an hour to reach the west end of the valley and I was really psyched to cross over the ridge and hit some open road.

But as we crested the summit to the outside world we came upon a sight that I’ve never seen before. From our vantage point we could see more than 6 miles of road twisting down into a valley and winding up the side of the next mountain. As far as the eye could see there was a line of Indian Tata trucks and busses stopped dead in their tracks. We still had clear road for a bit but as we drifted into the valley past thousands of bus passengers I wondered if I would ever make it home that night. Eventually our side of the two-lane highway became congested and we came to a dead halt.

See those dots way, way off in the distance - those are busses packed with people trying to get to where we were.
For the next two hours we proceeded at 100 meter stretches, interrupted by dead stops of up to a half hour. On the opposite side of the road the caravan only seemed to move once every four or five times we did. At one point, I looked at Chetra, who grew up in this region, and asked him if this was a fluke or normal.

“Not normal,” he said, “but not uncommon either.”

Just as noon approached we rid ourselves of traffic and Suman actually got the Bolero up to 50 miles an hour. I popped my head out the window and took in my first breaths of clean air since leaving the beach in Den Haag the first week of March. It was also the first time since my plane landed at the airport that I had traveled faster than 40 miles an hour. It’s very rare that you are ever out of traffic in Kathmandu.

The clouds were threatening, but they did open up from time to time to reveal villages climbing their way up the terrace-farmed mountains. The road hugged the Trisuli River much like the roads in the Oregon hug the streams of the Cascades. Although this was welcome scenery, it paled in comparison to the drunk-on-green rain-forests of Oregon. The biggest mountains in the world lay just beyond my reach, but I was homesick for the Pacific Northwest.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that the three of them were very familiar with and we were greeted warmly by the cook and his wife. While the Nepalis all went for their standard rice and dal, I saw a plate of egg-fried rice on the menu and ordered up a big helping. While I never got sick of Indian food, Nepali food has gotten the best of me. Unlike Tibetan food, there’s a bit of a kick to it, but eating steamed white rice meal after meal is killing me. When I got home from Dharamsala, I wanted more Indian food. But now I’m just jonesing for a steak.

After lunch we jumped back into the rig and headed to the wheelchair house, a few clicks back in the direction of Kathmandu. Chetra pointed Suman into a small road that quickly turned into a rocky double track trail along the river floor. With no notice, Suman took a left and barreled right into the Trisuli which was only a tiny stream at his point. He crossed it while slyly looking over at me to see my expression. When he plowed out of the bank on the far side he looked at my dropped jaw and gave a nice hearty chuckle.

Then he motored over some rocks before finding the double track that led directly up the opposite side of the valley. As he powered up the trail the terrain switched from a full road, back to double track and at sometimes, huge ditches that somehow the Bolero managed to pass. All the while we were climbing higher and higher up the side of the mountain.

In no short order we were hovering above the valley on a road that looked like it could easily crumble into the Trisuli at any juncture. Suman was smiling ear to ear as he navigated us higher and higher until we came upon the farmstead that was our destination.

While I have been on more hair-raising drives in Northern India, this one is the craziest for one that was described to me as a "Wheelchair-Friendly" environment. 

When Suk described the house to me I understood it to be an accessible home along an accessible road. But this certainly was not the case. After we parked, I had to be pushed around to the back of the house where there was no accessible entry to any of the three structures. The ruins of the former house still sat in a pile of rubble just in front of the new two-room structure that did not yet have a roof. Chetra and Suman wheeled me down a steep path to the entrance way where we met the couple who would soon inhabit it. Chetra explained to me that one room was the kitchen while the other was the living quarters – and soon there would be a wall separating the toilet and shower.

At some point the ruin of the former house would be cleared and they would construct a ramp that would allow them to make it up to the main house. But the main house was easily 10 feet higher than the new structure. If a wheeler planned on making it on their own power, that would require at least 90 feet of ramp. Their certainly wasn’t room for more than a few dozen feet to work with. I imagine that they will build a super-steep ramp and the residents will have to rely on their family to push them in and out of their own home. The 12-1 ADA ramp standard is a pipe dream in Nepal.  The only thing accessible in this home will be the bathroom and more than likely they will not leave their property for years on end.

Soon to be a bedroom and an accessible bathroom. 
I set up my camera and filmed what I could, also doing interviews with Chetra and the woman of the house. As I moved around and set up new shots, Suk whispered in my ear, “This place isn’t close to being finished. Go ahead and film, but the crew needs shots of the finished house.” Aside from the amazing scenery and the crazy drive, for his purposes, the trip was a bust.

We sipped tea and took photos (Every day is picture day in Nepal!) then piled back in the Bolero for the roller coaster ride back to the main road. The decent was twice as hairy as the climb, but Suman seemed to grin even wider. It occurred to me as he tested the edges of the road – and even had to back up for 100 yards -  that he might be the best damn driver in Kathmandu.

It was just around 3 when we got to the scene of the traffic nightmare, but miraculously it had cleared up. There were a few disabled vehicles that were causing the snarl and once they were removed, the train eventually pulled out of the valley. What took us two hours to clear in the morning was silenced in less than 20 minutes.

The Trisuli River Valley is much nicer when not lined with exhaust dumping Tatas.
But this time as we crested the ridge and looked over Kathmandu we saw storm clouds and traffic backing up in all directions. The four of us had been in excellent spirits even though the nasty traffic outside the valley, but this latest slowdown began to wear on us. I put my head down and kipped off for a half an hour only to wake to the same scenery as when I crashed.  

We had to cross all of Kathmandu in heavy traffic to drop off Suk and Chetra. I texted Sangita my house mom and told her I’d be home by 5. When 5 o’clock came and we hadn’t even seen Jorpati, I texted her again and said it would be closer to 7. This whole time Suman, who suffered through the first traffic jam was now into nearly 5 hours of driving only in first and second gear. After we dropped off Suk at the Hotel Tibet he looked at me, rubbed his leg and said, “This is torture – I haven’t seen 4th gear in hours.”

Suman navigated more than five hours of this on the day
After dropping off Chetra and plowing through the back roads to Suryabinayak (which thank god were open) I finally made it home. My phone read 7:05. Aside from lunch at the short stop at the house, Suman had been driving since 5:30 that morning – and still had 20 more minutes before he got home.   I told Suman he was Superman. He laughed and said “Superman is not going to work tomorrow.”

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